On January 15 of this year, I committed to spend the next 90 days in intensive study in order to learn Korean, or at least significantly improve my Korean language skills. This meant stepping up my daily language learning activities from roughly one hour a day, to three or four hours a day, giving me a total for the three months of roughly 300 hours.
I was not starting from scratch. I first studied Korean about 7 years ago, about one hour a day or so, mostly listening and reading. I have also done short spurts of Korean at LingQ, mixed in with my study of Russian, Czech, Portuguese, Romanian and other languages at LingQ over the past 6 or 7 years.
But this was to be different. I wanted to devote myself to more intensive study of Korean in order to make a breakthrough. I was tired of being able to say a few things in Korean, just to impress some Korean friends, and then not being able to understand most of what was said back to me. I also wanted to get to a level where I could listen to podcasts, read Korean newspapers, and even watch Korean drama on TV!
This was not to be just my own challenge but I invited LingQ members and my YouTube channel viewers to participate in this project. This was the genesis of the 90-Day Challenge at LingQ. To date almost 2000 people have joined me in the challenge. I hope they are enjoying the experience.
I am now almost one third the way through. I started 4 weeks ago. This is a good time to take stock of what I have learned and what I have achieved, and what I plan to do for the next two months. Hopefully my experience, as well as the experience of others who are taking part in the challenge, can help language learners everywhere achieve their goals. We will probably want to do this again, if it proves successful.
Some issue to ponder
Finding the time
I am in the lucky position of being self-employed and semi-retired. But I am busy. I still have business meetings. I play old-timer’s hockey three times a week. I like to go cross country skiing on the local mountains. I have a social life and a family life. So I cannot devote myself to language learning the way I did when, as a bachelor diplomat, I studied Mandarin Chinese over 45 years ago. At that time I was an employee of the Canadian government and my full-time job was to study Mandarin.
This 90-Day Challenge is different, even though I am applying many of the techniques that I developed way back then, and which I have refined over the years while learning other languages.
The first issue is finding the time.
Not only am I committed to more intensive study of Korean, but I am also vlogging daily and keeping a diary, while also maintaining this blog. Here are some of the ways that I have been able to stay on track.
Don’t study, just learn
Studying is hard work, and often amounts to an uphill struggle to force knowledge into our reluctant brains. It is hard to maintain this activity except for short spurts, in preparation for exams and the like. So I don’t study. I don’t do exercises. I don’t try to memorize rules or tables. I just expose myself to the language in ways that become more and more enjoyable as I progress in the language.
At least half of my daily study time is listening. I listen while doing household chores, while exercising, while cross country skiing, while sitting in the car, and elsewhere.
Some people say they can’t concentrate on listening to a foreign language while doing other chores. My answer to them is: ”Don’t concentrate, just listen”. Of course we fade in and out. Sometimes we understand more and sometimes we understand less. It does not matter. The more we do this, the better we get at it, and the more we accept that it is OK not to be focused all the time. It is simply not possible to do so.
If done right, this exposure to the language, through somewhat passive listening, is extremely valuable. It is my major language learning activity. I could not learn languages if I could not listen while doing other chores.
In order to have a chance to understand what we are listening to, it is important to have access to transcripts. We improve our comprehension by reading what we are listening to, and by listening and reading the same content more than once. Mostly I use LingQ for this.
Make use of dead time, even a little bit count
If I have small task to do at home, I grab my MP3 player and ear-phones. I keep one or several books by my bed and even by the toilet (Yes, sorry to be a little vulgar here).
I have my iPhone with me at all times, and if I have to wait somewhere I can either read, or listen, or do Flash Cards, using the iLingQ app on the iPhone.
It does not matter when you get the learning in. Three or four chunks of 5-10 minute learning sessions quickly add up. Even three minutes of exposure here and there is an opportunity to keep the new language fresh in your brain.
Vary the nature of the activity to avoid burn-out
The brain likes variety and novelty. If you only study the same material over and over again, in the hope of “mastering” it, you may burn out. You will encounter the law of diminishing returns.
Try to vary the nature of the learning activity, the nature of the content you are learning from, and the difficulty level.
If you feel like listening, listen. If you feel like reading, read. If you feel like watching a TV program in the target language, do so.
If you are still at the stage where you are mostly using beginner material, try to find different sources covering similar beginner vocabulary and phrasing. That is what I have done with Korean, going back to the beginner books I bought 7 years ago.
If you are intermediate, intersperse some easy material with more difficult content. Challenge yourself to new and interesting content even while you are still working with material where your comprehension is about 60-70%. It is natural to want to complete lessons, but understanding everything in a lesson is not necessary. When you feel the urge, move on to something else.
Move to authentic content as soon as you can
To learn a language you have to get closer to it, make it part of you. What is foreign, strange and inhospitable has to start to feel comfortable, “homey”, ours. The more intensively we study, the sooner we can integrate the new language and feel at home in it. I am starting to feel this now with my Korean.
The language of beginner courses is artificial. It is not spoken by real people who have real and meaningful things to say. It is language created for the learner. Such language content has the advantage of being spoken more slowly than in the real word. The vocabulary is more limited. You have a sense of comfort in that it is easier to understand. By all means use this kind of material to get started.
Soon, however, in order to get make the language yours, you need to venture into the world of the real language as spoken by real people. You need to hear or read what the speakers of that language have to say. What are the daily preoccupations of Korean people, for example? It is difficult and occasionally frustrating to move out of the comfort of the learner environment. But it is necessary.
With my Korean I started with small amounts of difficult content using our LingQ library, I was able to find many courses that were difficult for me, yet attracted my interest. I started with a small number, and read them and listened to them quite a few times. I also started reading articles from a Korean newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, which I imported into LingQ. This gave me an idea of what people are thinking and saying and doing in Korea.
At the same time I regularly review easier material, grammar patterns, or starter books like Assimil and others. Variety keeps things fresh and stimulating.
Whatever the level we are at, there will be contexts or structures in the language that seem strange, even illogical. This is certainly the case in Korean. This is because the language and its logic are strange, or at least strange to us. But they are quite reasonable and normal in the target language. We just have to get used to them. This takes time, but with enough exposure things start to become clearer. We need to believe that this is going to happen for us, even as we are struggling.
Find your “catalytic converter” and stay with it
In every language I have found content items where the interest level was high, the difficulty level just manageable, and the sound and voice quality pleasing. These have been audio books, podcasts, radio programs and the like. For Russian it was audio books of Tolstoy or Turgenev or Kuprin for which I also had the transcripts, or Echo Moskvi with its daily interviews on topical subjects. For Czech it was the range of programs and podcasts from Czech Radio. The same was the case in other languages.
This pleasing, interesting and yet challenging material is what takes me through to the next level. The interest level keeps me engaged. The voice and sound quality, if they are really good, will enable me to listen over and over, even if I don’t fully understand. At first it seems at times as if I can only understand some short snippets when I listen, even though I hear the words clearly. Yet this constant exposure to high quality authentic content gradually forges a new level of association with the language in our brains. Bit by bit, the fog lifts, as we listen to our favourite language content. Eventually we listen less often to the same lesson. Soon we are in a position to attack other content of the same level. This content is the catalyst that converts us into comfortable listeners and readers of the language. Along the way we acquire a large vocabulary.
My search for this “catalytic converter” has been difficult in Korean. However, I think the recent courses placed in our library by member Imani, will fill this role. The timing is about right now. Let’s see where this takes me over the next month or so.
When you are ready, speak and speak a lot
My experience in learning Mandarin Chinese over 45 years ago was that exposure, intensive exposure it the key to rapid acquisition of new language habits.
So where does speaking fit in? It is very important.
With my stepped up learning activities in the challenge, I have more time to speak with my tutors at LingQ. Since I like my learning activities to be meaningful, I am not a fan of speaking in the target language before I have the ability to understand what is said, and have enough words to have a meaningful conversation. On the other hand, I am not starting Korean from scratch, so I was able to start speaking quite early on in the challenge. For the first few weeks I mainly wanted to recover to the level that I had achieved before. Then I started speaking.
For this first month or for the first 100 hours or so, my speaking amounts to 3.8 hours or 3.8% of the total. Here you can compare my conversation with our LingQ tutor, Juhyun now, and a year ago.
As I enter the second month I intend to speak about 2-3 hours a week, with several of our LingQ tutors via Skype. They are an interesting group of individuals who provide stimulus, empathy and guidance. I hope to get in at least ten hours of speaking for the month or 10 % of my time. I am also going to try to arrange opportunities to get together with Korean speakers face to face, here in Vancouver. I would not want to do this with local Koreans, if I were not able to maintain at least a minimally intelligent level of conversation
If I look back on the first month, I feel that I am about where could expect to be. I would like to be further ahead, but the truth is that it takes time to learn a language, and to achieve the level of Korean that I set as my goal, good comprehension, oral and written, and a basic ability to have meaningful conversations.
I will report again in a month. I hope those of you who are taking the challenge are also finding success.